Unforgotten Exmoor

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"Historic Voices of Exmoor"

review of Unforgotten Exmoor Volume One
Black and white photo from Blanche & John Pile's chapter circa early 1920s of well-to-do holiday-makers posing with their car in front of Manor farm, above Barbrook in north Devon.

If you want to find out what a place was really like in the old days, ask the people who were there. History books about grand people occupying important roles on the national stage are fine, but they're nothing like the real thing. If it's social history you want, then you've got to talk to the people who know what they're talking about, find out what's locked away in the memories of ordinary, decent folk.

With "Unforgotten Exmoor" David Ramsay does just that, skilfully interviewing a handful of elderly locals ("the old people" he calls them) about their early lives in Barbrook, Brendon, Countisbury and Lynton. And the result is a charmingly edited and wonderfully readable set of reminiscences on an old way of life when values were different and communities were everything. Octogenarian Victor Lock tells us what it was like to be a coffin maker, spending days bending the elm sides with parallel saw cuts and boiling water, making oversize templates for the grave-digger. Blanch and John Pile reminisce on pig killing and offal sausages, lamb tail pie and plucking fowl. Ted Lethaby recalls how his mother took in washing from Glenthorne, boiling, ironing and starching night and day, never venturing far from the home farm. After the war Ted joined the AA. He was good with motorbikes: "Back then there wasn't much to an engine - you had a set of plugs, a set of points, a condenser, a coil, some spark plugs, and if you had petrol it would go!". Roy Kellaway recalls playing cricket on the local recreation ground, listening to the BBC's "Children's Hour" and adventures with his faithful dog Spud (there's a lovely old photo of Spud sitting on top of Roy's rather confused looking show-pony, Misty.)

Black and white photo from Ted Lethaby's chapter circa 1933 of Barbara Roberts the Foreland Point lighthouse keeper's daughter, aged about four, holding the halter of one of the heavy horses from Kipscombe farm, above Countisbury in north Devon.

Of course, the oral history - these lovingly transcribed recollections of a vanished world - steals the show. But there is something irresistibly wistful about the photography. If you look carefully at these ancient black-and-whites you'll notice that people were different in those days. It's not a trick of the photographic process, or looking through rose-tinted glasses. These old Exmoor locals may have lacked the material wealth, the health care and the digital entertainments that we have today, but they looked fitter and happier, more hopeful, surrounded by their livestock, motorbikes and companion animals.

As with the rest of the nation, these men and women endured the Second World War, a threat that runs throughout "Unforgotten Exmoor". They talk of the blackouts and watching the bombing of South Wales lighting up the sky across the Bristol Channel. And all the time, through their memories, we are shown a relationship with the land that the modern world seems to have no time for. Ted Lethaby has spent more than eighty years living in Countisbury. His father was the sexton at Countisbury church, he was christened and married there, and his family are all buried there. And he likes living there still, so that he can keep an eye on everything, and when the time comes "they won't have far to carry me..."

"Unforgotten Exmoor" is such a nostalgic treat that it leaves you hungry for more of these first-hand strolls down memory lane. Luckily for us there are two more similar volumes of these evocative memories scheduled for publication. And if the subsequent volumes yield as much pleasure to the amateur local historian as this volume has, then they'll have been well worth the wait.

> Read more about Unforgotten Exmoor Volume One

Bookdealer Magazine, December 2009, Reviewed by Nick Smith

"Historic Voices of Exmoor"

review of Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Two
Black and white photo, from Ivy Lock's chapter, circa 1930s of two farm workers Tom and Bill Lock with their horse and cart at Cranscombe farm.

Unforgotten Exmoor is the second volume in a series of the social history of ordinary folk in a part of the world that most of us have forgotten or will never know. Reflecting on their ordinary lives, their stories are extraordinary, evoking a deeply nostalgic and affectionate portrait of bygone days in pre-war Exmoor.

Life might have been tougher then – far tougher – for the likes of Ivy Archer, Barbara Durman, Joan Hooper and Jim Sanders, but, as each tells their tale, there’s always the feeling that it was somehow better, less complicated, more in tune with the rhythms of the land.

These charming recollections of yesteryear will remind many of us that it was the sheer simplicity of the old days that made them so rewarding. For Barbara the new-fangled electric light hurt her eyes; Ivy was a Land-Girl; Jim played snakes and ladders or with his dogs outside, while Joan shared a bedroom with her grandmother.

Conjuring up memories of places such as Cheriton, Cranscombe, Lynton, Bossington and Porlock, this second volume of Unforgotten Exmoor will delight those whose roots are in the area, who enjoy ‘real’ history in the oral tradition, and who regret the passing of old-fashioned country ways.

> Read more about Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Two

Bookdealer Magazine, April 2010, Reviewed by Nick Smith, Literary Editor

"Unforgotten Exmoor - Volume Three"

review of Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Three

It has been a delight to read this new volume of David Ramsay’s Unforgotten Exmoor, the third in the series, and to know that someone is continuing to collect these important memories from Exmoor’s older residents. And that they are willing to share them. The book, like the earlier volumes, focuses mainly on a central coastal swathe between Lynton and Porlock, with the Brendon Valley to the south. This area, in reality only a small portion of Exmoor, is the prism through which we see the rest of the national park, and beyond. This is what makes it so interesting. Indeed, taken together, the three volumes of Unforgotten Exmoor are a testament to the fact that small is beautiful. Lives interweave, one person’s reminiscence is told again by another, but differently, and bit by bit, like a pointillist painting, a picture develops of what life was like in the earlier part of the twentieth century. These stories, the stories of Everyman, show how the personal is political and how life on Exmoor, remote as it was at the time, still reflected, and was influenced by, events on the wider world stage.

As with all good stories, we are left wanting to know more. About the tramps who knocked on Josie’s door in the Depression, ex-servicemen from the first world war, looking for work; about the conscientious objectors, working in the woods; or David Westcott’s cider-making curate, who only had 52 sermons, which he preached on the same week each year. And how John Hoyles, a stone mason, came to be a Grenadier standing guard outside Buckingham Palace.

Recording life stories is not something to be embarked on lightly; it requires enthusiasm, commitment, trust and co-operation on all sides. David, and those who contributed to this book, are to be applauded. As well as being fascinating to read, Unforgotten Exmoor, supported as it is by photographs and footnotes, enhances our understanding of Exmoor’s social history. It is a valuable addition to the oral history archive produced by the Dulverton and District Civic Society* and indeed revisits two of those who contributed to it. It is good to know that life goes on, and continues to be recorded.

Birdie Johnson produced the Exmoor Oral History Archive, now lodged with Somerset Record Office. She and photographer Mark Rattenbury are co-authors of the accompanying book, Reflections, Life Portraits of Exmoor.

> Read more about Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Three

Exmoor Magazine, Spring 2011, Reviewed by Birdie Johnson, Exmoor Oral History Archive

"Capturing the past"

review of Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Four

Oral history is a kind of safety net, preserving details that would otherwise drop from view. The fourth volume of David Ramsay’s ‘Unforgotten Exmoor’, an anthology of the recollections of local residents supplemented by photographs from their family albums, is a perfect example of the genre: Ramsay, a tactful editor, inserts the odd helpful footnote when a reference needs glossing, but otherwise allows his subjects to speak for themselves, and their memories to open doors into a world that would otherwise have long faded into the mists.

And one of the most striking things about that world is how it’s one in which health and safety are just the ghosts of christmases yet to come. Children drive tractors into stone pillars or hang on to bullocks’ tails to be dragged round muddy yards without suffering much harm. But then, this was a world emerging from a war in which many of those who came home did so with terrible wounds: ‘Colonel Jackson had himself returned from the war with both of his legs blown off, and father learned him to ride,’ recalls Gerald Down, in a very matter-of-fact summation of what was, after all, a matter of fact. Taken for granted was that multiple amputation would not be allowed to interfere with life’s ordinary pursuits: the war took what it took, but it left the Colonel intact for all that.

Getting on with it was the important thing then, and probably still is - Exmoor’s always seemed slightly out of synch with the modern world, which is one of it’s main attractions. The lines between history and nursery rhyme blur at times in this volume - Lilian Moffat’s grandfather, Robert Westcott, ‘had a reputation for being incredibly strong. He’d carry thirteen children all upstairs at once, clinging on to each except the baby, whose nappy he gripped between his teeth.’ Sadly there’s no accompanying photograph, but it’s easy to imagine an Edward Lear illustration of the family bedtime. There is, however, a photograph of Tony Richard’s Aunt Ilott - ‘a wonderful horsewoman [who] could run alongside a horse and vault up onto the saddle with ease’, though the image shows a stout matron who would seem more likely to be managing a stall at a church fete than a horse. Perhaps her vaulting days were already in the past, another reminder that time doesn’t stand still for a moment - which is why books like this are so valuable. They might not be able to halt the process, but they capture some of what’s lost along the way.

> Read more about Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Four

Mick Herron in "The Bookman" 2011-2012

"Unforgotten Exmoor"

review of Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Four

If I were to tell you that here four Exmoor people reminisce about their early years, families and lives, and that this is the third volume in a series, you might be forgiven for feeling less than inspired.

You could not be more wrong. The stories told cover a wonderfully wide spread, touching on just about every aspect of Exmoor.

Farming is well described, from the days when everything was done by hand (tettie-lifting was one of the worst jobs) with gradual mechanisation only slightly easing the burden. Delivering the milk by pony, pitching up sheaves onto the cart, watching the village smithy at work and slaughtering animals (pole-axed by Ern Fouracre, with the skins sent off to the tannery at Porlock) are just some of the many graphic scenes.

Hunting of course figures strongly with many a character and escapade, not to mention shooting, fishing, rabbiting, berry picking and galloping through Culbone woods in the dark.

Humour abounds - whether it was where the Elsan was tipped, how old Abraham Bale turned his beer into a hot toddy, how the girls became human hamsters or how Uncle Cecil in his mobile shop managed to find something for a customer he did not have... But there’s tragedy and sadness as well, with vivid accounts of the 1952 flood, and some terrible eyewitness descriptions of events from World War II.

Particularly useful and interesting are the editor’s footnotes, filling in background and clarifying details.

The quality (and quantity) of the photographs is excellent, ranging from a wedding at Oare church in 1920 (picture taken by Alfred Vowles) to the stricken Forrest Hall (the cause of the famous overland lifeboat launch).

Here then is a beautifully produced book, fascinating to any one who loves Exmoor, through which the humour and intelligence, kindness and sheer practical good sense of the narrators shines.

> Read more about Unforgotten Exmoor Volume Four

"Exmoor Review" Volume 53, 2012

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